Lanford Wilson works hard. The first time we meet, the playwright is taking a coffee break from writing. Unshaven, hyper, studiedly haggard -- cheerfully haggard -- he jangles down the hallway at the Circle Repertory Company, the off-Broadway theater he helped found in 1969, and pops into the green room, where actors congregate while waiting for rehearsals or classes or auditions to begin. He jokes with a couple of actors, greets a visitors, shakes some Cremora into his styrofoam cup and then heads back to his desk. Not a desk, actually -- it's sort of a bare place where he's shoved aside some scripts and things on a long table in the small, cluttered office he shares with two women who are administrators for Circle Rep. "This is my spot," he says, slapping the surface in front of his paper-loaded typewriter. Here in the middle of ringing telephones, shuffling papers and human traffic is where Wilson performs what back in his native
Midwestern farm country might be called his "writing chores."
At 45, Lanford Wilson has written something like three dozen plays. They range from a monologue about a man who comes home to an empty house, to a thirty-four-character drama about junkies and streetwalkers, to a trilogy spanning five generations of an American family. His first play, a one-act called
Home Free, about an incestuous young brother and sister, opened in Greenwich Village in 1964 at the minuscule Caffe Cino, the legendary, now nonexistent coffeehouse. His latest, the opus he's struggling to finish amid the bustle of Circle Rep's business as usual, was scheduled to premiere at the New World Festival in Miami last month. Set in a Catholic mission in New Mexico where an art history professor, a professional tennis player and sundry other travelers wait out a brush with nuclear disaster, this new play is one of three commissioned for the festival in Florida; the other playwrights offering new works are Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. If Lanford Wilson hasn't already established himself as their heir, this rendezvous in the Everglades ought to do the trick.
If he gets the damn thing done. Playwrights aren't accustomed to having deadlines, and now, three months before the opening, the play is only half-finished. "It's interesting how it came about," says Wilson. "I didn't know what I was going to do, and I was starting to panic." He tilts back in his chair and props a Pro-Ked up on his, ah, spot. Lean and boyish, he's dressed in a blue work shirt, a green sweater and jeans, and his dull-brown hair, streaked with steely silver, tends to flop down over his forehead. "I have a new apartment," he says, "and I went down the block to check out the bars in the neighborhood. I went into one, nothing happening, and I saw behind the bar they had these two little postcards of barren,
why-would-anyone-want-to- take-a-picture-of-that landscape. I thought -- New Mexico, Colorado, Utah -- the bartender is obviously on vacation and sent back these postcards.
"Suddenly, I saw the inside of this mission and these people who had been detained. A woman throwing her purse down on a bench and saying, 'Is this the pits?' and this other guy going 'Ohhhhh, rah-thah....' It was very strange to get a flash like that, and it was so startling I went with it. Pretty soon, all six characters came to me, all of them in various states of crisis. I don't know how it all ends;
I'm letting them tell me. it's wonderful to write like that, just free-fall."
Even half done, the play seems to touch on several of the hottest topics of the day: religion, tennis, nuclear power. Is this intentional?
Wilson shrugs. "I write what's in the air."
More than most of his peers, Lanford Wilson has his ear cocked to the voice of the American people. As a writer, he doesn't have the mad, myth-making magic of Sam Shepard or the penetrating zaniness of John Guare. But Wilson -- born and bred among Ozark hillbillies, schooled in San Diego and Chicago, irresistibly drawn to the bright lights of New York -- somehow manages to straddle middle America and midtown Manhattan, small-town simplicity and big-city sophistication, working-class virtues and idle-rich vices, the far-out and the far right.
Mr. Middle-of-the-Road? Maybe. You could also call him Mr. Zeitgeist. At a time when the family as an institution is under attack in life and fiction, Wilson's plays often portray people finding ways to regroup according to need rather than habit: Wilson focuses on preserving -- conserving -- what's good about the past for use in the future. In the regional-theater environment of Circle Rep, Wilson has had the freedom to refine a style of playwriting sometimes labeled "lyric realism."
"It's not something Lanford invented, but it is something he happens to do awfully well," says Marshall Mason, the Texas-born artistic director of Circle Rep. "It's a kind of realism that I feel is the voice of the native American theater, but it is realism that is elevated in its language. It takes the language people speak and makes it more musical."
Mason met Wilson in 1965, when he himself was just out of Northwestern University, and he has since directed most of Wilson's plays. "We did a few of his little plays at Circle, but he wasn't around much for the first couple of years," Mason recalls. "The real turning point came when one of our actresses, Conchata Ferrell, wanted to improve her range and decided to revive one of Lanford's one-acts called
Ludlow Fair. For the other character, I suggested a young woman named Trish Hawkins, who had been in one of our workshops. Lanford absolutely flipped over Trish. She was the best actress he'd ever seen in his life. One night he and I were working real late building new seating units, and this song came on the radio, 'The City of New Orleans.' And he said, 'Oh, there's that song about the railroad; I'm going to write a play about the railroads, and I'm gonna use Trish and Chatty,' and on and on -- he was just waxing eloquent. That was in the fall, and by Christmas he had written
The Hot L Baltimore. I think that's when he decided to make this his home and write for the company."
Mason pauses, suddenly remembering a minor detail he left out. "Then Hot L
was an enormous success and changed all of our lives. Dramatically."
Lanford Wilson has been working in the garden, a quarter-acre plot in the backyard of his two-story wood-frame house in the affluent Long Island community of Sag Harbor -- the house that
Hot L Baltimore built. Actually, it was built in 1845, and Wilson earned the $5000 down payment from his libretto for Lee Hoiby's opera based on Tennessee Williams'
Summer and Smoke. But it wasn't until the three-year run of
Hot L -- an essentially plotless but moving and funny study of a dozen lonely misfits set in the lobby of a once-elegant hotel scheduled for demolition -- that he made enough money to start restoring the place to its former glory.
Though the grounds and garden are still being renovated, the upstairs is a different story, the "after" image in this
House and Garden make- over: a sparsely furnished but homey bedroom, a guest room and a study. Wilson washes up, and we settle down to talk in the study, a huge, airy room lined with bookshelves and windows and dominated by a working floor-to-ceiling fireplace. The desk shows signs of recent industry (no fewer than three typewriters in sight), and the walls are covered with framed photos and posters from productions of his plays.
"I was always very excited by theater," says Wilson, who was born in rural Missouri and moved to Springfield at the age of five with his just-divorced mother. "Growing up, I had no idea plays were written, for some reason. I started out writing stories, and then suddenly I realized something I was writing was a play. I thought, I don't know how to write a play. I don't even know what a play is. So I went to the downtown center of the University of Chicago, to the
adult- education program, and in ten nights I learned about exposition and character development and all those things plays are made of. That was my playwriting education."
Soon, he moved to New York and took a room in a fleabag hotel on the Upper West Side, haunting all-night coffee shops and eavesdropping on the hookers and druggies. "I was so excited by the sound of what was around me, those incredibly vibrant though maybe burned-out lives banging against each other. I would sit meekly in the corner and write down everything that was said." His notes turned into
Balm in Gilead, which was a sensation when Marshall Mason directed it at Cafe La Mama in 1965 with dozens of actors playing faggots, dykes, junkies, hustlers, and deadbeats at an all-night cafe. The musically notated, overlapping conversations sounded like everyone talking at once, a favorite Wilson device: in confusion, verisimilitude. "I was impatient with
you-talk-then-I'll-talk-then-you- talk-then-I'll-talk. So many people around me talk at the same time, they're all yelling and screaming, saying, 'No, no, no, me, me, me.' I was attracted to the idea of putting that onstage."
Wilson gets up to adjust the thermostat. He's not extremely comfortable sitting and talking for long periods of time; he fidgets a lot. He lights a cigarette, puts on his sweater, turns up the thermostat, takes off the sweater, stubs out the cigarette in a seashell ashtray. It's not that he's jittery or nervous. It's just that, left alone, he'd probably be writing or typing, pruning or digging. You know, working.
"The New York sound was so overwhelming," he continues. "I couldn't write fast enough. After a while I thought, here I am, this hillbilly person writing all these New York plays. What am I doing? The sound of Missouri" -- he pronounces it
Ma-zur-ah -- "I know that better than I know anything." So he took the word-collage technique he'd been developing, applied it to the language he grew up with and concocted
This Is the Rill Speaking, an idyllic play for rural voices, a down-home
Under Milkwood. Then he turned around and wrote the underbelly of that play,
The Rimers of Eldritch, an eerie, elliptical drama about small-town intolerance. Along with a few one-act character studies (most notably
The Madness of Lady Bright, the last gasp of a lonely, aging homosexual), these are the plays with which Lanford Wilson first earned success as a playwright.
Of course, in those days success meant filling sixty-five seats for eight performances. Nowadays the amateur rights to those early plays alone earn Wilson a tidy annuity of $10,000 or so. But then, he worked odd jobs to pay the rent. Temporary typist. Reservations clerk at the Americana Hotel. A dishwashing gig, where some Spanish coworkers mispronounced his name as "Lance," which all his friends call him now. Oh, and he did get a grand sum of $5000 to do a screen adaptation of
One Arm, Tennessee Williams' short story about a male hustler. "Then the day after I finished, there was an invited preview of
Midnight Cowboy, and there went that idea down the drain."
Wilson starts to rattle off choice vignettes from the unproduced screenplay, stories spiced with believable detail. The question presents itself -- did Lanford ever hustle himself? "Sure. How am I supposed to know about all this?" He puts his sweater back on and closes the door to an unheated room. More fidgeting -- or maybe he is nervous talking about this. "Certainly in Chicago and the first two years in New York.
Through an agency." Graying, sallow, slightly cadaverous, Wilson doesn't exactly look like a former boy-for-hire -- he is, after all, middle-aged. But his early book-jacket photos show a clear-eyed, thick-lipped hayseed kid you could imagine picking up spare cash with an occasional trick and returning to his furnished room to make notes of his escapades. "You get some fun lines," he says.
His whoring days didn't last long. Soon, he graduated to such prestigious patrons as the Rockefeller Foundation, whose playwriting grants got him through a couple of years while he worked on two plays that stiffed on Broadway --
The Gingham Dog, the story of an interracial couple; and
Lemon Sky, an autobiographical work starring the then unknown Christopher Walken. It wasn't long after this that he found a home at Circle Rep and struck pay dirt with
The Hot L Baltimore.
Besides inspiring a short-lived television series and giving the playwright a steady income,
The Hot L Baltimore changed Wilson's work dramatically. For the first time, he crossbred his poeticism with situational drama. But he reached the peak of his writing powers to date with the three Talley plays, which together represent as fine a piece of work as any American playwright has achieved.
A Tale Told, the first in the series but the last to be written, takes place on July 4th, 1944, in the Talley family mansion on the other side (the "good" side) of the town -- Lebanon, Missouri -- Wilson grew up in. The action of
Talley's Folly, which won a Pulitzer Prize, occurs simultaneously in the boathouse down by the river during
A Tale Told. And Fifth of July is set a generation later (July 4th and 5th, 1977) on the back porch of the Talley place; one character who was an infant offstage in
A Tale Told is now a grown woman and mother, and the main character of
Talley's Folly appears in Fifth as a candy box full of ashes. Formally, the plays are quite different.
Tale is an almost old-fashioned, well-made play reminiscent of Lillian Hellman's
The Little Foxes, in which the greed and moral weakness of an aristocratic
Southern family are exposed; Folly, written expressly for Judd Hirsch of TV's
Taxi!, is "a no-holds-barred romantic story" in which a middle-aged Jewish accountant named Matt Friedman woos and wins the beautiful but feisty Sally Talley, the black sheep of the family; and
Fifth is a serious contemporary comedy about the last Talley son, his male lover, Tally's unwed sister and her daughter.
Together, these plays add up to a vivid portrait of America in this century. The historical perspective -- the acknowledgement of patterns in human behavior, of cause and effect, of forces larger than personal need -- is essential to great art. And Lanford Wilson is one of the few playwrights of his generation to tackle the great themes of contemporary life in the mythical arena of theater. "We have a history in this country of just ripping down and starting over," he says, "and it seems a little capricious or something. I'm not didactic, but I think I'm saying, 'Look at what you're throwing away. At least as it's going over the fence, check it out.'"
Oddly enough, Wilson doesn't consider the Talley plays his best work. That honor he reserves for
The Mound Builders. Why? "It's exactly what I tried to do. I started thinking, 'Why do we work? And why do we create?' I addressed those questions throughout the play." And why do we? "I would have to read you the whole play."
Which he almost does. He goes to the bookshelf, pulls out a hardbound copy and leafs through it, citing different characters' takes on the subject. The archaeologist in charge of digging up the ruins of an ancient Indian culture reflects, "A man's life work is taken up, undertaken, I have no doubt, to blind him to the passing moon. I have no doubt that in an area of his almost unconscious he knows this and therefore is not blinded but only driven."
And what about Wilson himself, Mister Zeitgeist? Why does he work?
Pause. Long pause. "Why" -- Wilson's blue-gray eyes wander across the room, out the window, faraway for a moment -- "is probably answered in that speech that I read. To blind myself to the passing moon. To forget time."
The answer hangs in the air, painfully honest. There's something lonely there. Too sad, too final.
"There's also a that's-what-I-do," Wilson continues, lighting a cigarette. "I'm excited by the actors, and I'm crazy for theater. Being involved in the company, I have to do something so they'll let me in."
We laugh. That reverie, that scary moment of aching emptiness passes, and Wilson plunges back into his usual chatter, talking engagedly about actors. He will describe performances from fifteen years ago as if he saw them yesterday and supply a running commentary on their palpable effect. "Your blood runs cold," or "Your heart stops," or "She was
only brilliant, only perfect, and broke your heart in half, in half, in half."
Actors understandably appreciate having such an ally in the playwright's corner. Christopher Reeve, who played the lead in
Fifth of July on Broadway (originally written for and played by William Hurt), says, "There's never a sense that he's cooling his heels waiting for you to get it right. I brought out different things in Kenny than Bill Hurt had played, and Lanford welcomed them. he seems eager to watch actors discover things in his plays."
"He knows that when you write something for somebody," quips Judd Hirsch, "you don't have to do so much work." Hirsch, who originated the role of the hotel clerk in
Hot L Baltimore, was both puzzled and suspicious when Wilson wrote
Talley's Folly for him. But in rehearsal, he discovered that "the character was at home in me.
The humor was buried in me. He took from what I'm like, effectively."
Wilson is probably the only major American playwright who has yet to be enticed to
Hollywood. "I don't particularly like movies," says Wilson, "and as soon as you say that, movie people aren't terribly interested anymore." Norman Mailer recommended him to do the TV treatment of
The Executioner's Song, which he politely declined.
"First of all, you'd have to read the whole book, and have you seen how thick it is?" The closest he's come to the silver screen is with the unproduced adaptation of
One Arm, unless you count The Migrants, the television movie he wrote with Tennessee Williams that did get made.
Notice how Tennessee Williams keeps coming back into the picture? Wilson says he's friendly with Williams, having worked with him on the opera version of
Summer and Smoke, as well as on One Arm and The
Migrants. As there are certain, albeit superficial, similarities in their lives and work, does Wilson think Williams perceives in his writing the continuance of a tradition? "I don't know. If he does, he's never said anything about it. I don't compare myself to Tennessee Williams, no, thank you. You're talking Tennessee Williams. He's great, and I'm not." Modesty, modesty. Doesn't the idea of sharing a bill representing American drama at the New World Festival suggest that they are at least peers? "If I'm that good, I don't want to know about it. I have to life. It's why I focus on writing for specific actors, working on specific things, and not on the hoopla. You can't live up to the hoopla."
So this two-bit hack scribbler hides out from the hoopla in Sag Harbor, where his friends consist mostly of antique dealers and architects and psychiatrists who inhabit the Hamptons. And now, as the sky turns
purple outside the study's picture windows and the wine bottle runs dry, we wander down the street to a little Italian restaurant to meet one of these friends for dinner, a kindly, gray-haired woman named Florence who runs a real-estate agency in Southampton. As they chat, they seem like odd intimates, even though they're only neighbors. Then I remember that one of the characters in the new play -- the one that's half-finished -- is the widow of a somewhat renowned painter, a description that also fits Florence. Somewhere underneath the veal parmigiana, Wilson is probably soaking up her cadences and concerns, piecing together the pattern of another story from America. And that's where I leave him. Still working.
July 22, 1982